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The Making of the Weta "Book Cards":
An Interview With Weta Workshop's Daniel Falconer

By now you've seen the first of the series of "book cards" depicting characters from The Lord of the Rings novels – but not appearing in the films – being created for The Lord of the Rings TCG. Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, Glorfindel, and Radagast will debut this spring as preview cards in the Countdown Collection and as diffraction foils in the Reflections set; more book cards will appear in other Lord of the Rings TCG products and promotions beginning in mid-2004.

As recently announced, the images for the "book cards" are being created by Weta Workshop, the Academy Award-winning special effects studio which created many of the props and special effects in the films. The images to be created include not only characters but also a number of "prop shots" of weaponry, Rings of Power, and Palantiri which were seen only briefly (or not at all) in the films.

Earlier this year, Decipher's Creative Director, Dan Burns, journeyed to Middle-earth – New Zealand, that is – to oversee Weta Workshop's photo shoot and ensure that Decipher's goals and concepts were realized. During his three-week stay, in addition to shooting some exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and acting as a costumed Denethor stand-in for some closeup shots of his sword and seeing-stone (one of which will appear in the Reflections set), Dan also talked at length with Weta Workshop senior designer Daniel Falconer (left and below) about the process of casting and costuming the characters for this unique photo shoot.

Daniel Falconer wields a replica of Glamdring's Sword
at the DecipherCon 2003 awards ceremony.

Dan Burns interviews Daniel Falconer (photos courtesy of Daniel Falconer):

What are your thoughts about the Decipher project and being involved in it?

The thing I like about it is that it gives us a chance to go back and expand the world of the making of the movies. It's really cool to be able to do stuff that happens in the novels that for whatever reason got cut or was never going to fit in the story. It's nice to go back in and build on them, and also I feel like with all this work on the movies, I have learned a great deal more since then. So it's nice to be able to apply some of that knowledge to it and go back into it. I like Middle-earth so much I don't really want to leave it anyway, so it's a nice excuse (laughs) to stay in it a bit longer.

Initially, were there plans to include some of these characters in the film?

Some of them. For a while there at least, there was talk about Radagast making an appearance, if only just in the background of a scene. A costume was made for him, and of course we never end up shooting, so this was a nice chance to use it. And interestingly enough, the guy who is our Radagast in these cards was actually going to be Radagast for the film as well, which is cool.

So it's like full circle, almost.

Yeah, he gets his chance even though he didn't make it in front of the camera in the first place.

Radagast the Brown with his "fellow wizards."

Or ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Yes (laughs). What about the rest? Glorfindel, as far as I am aware, was never in it. But Jarl Benzon, whose brother played Rumil, the brother of Haldir, has been an Elven extra for ages and ages. He gets his chance to shine in there, too, which is nice. I don't think we had any real plans for Tom and Goldberry. They were one of those things that got cut very early on. I can understand why. But having said that, I know that you only have to look on the Internet to see what fondness they have for these characters. So it's really cool to do them for the game.

I think probably Tom is one of the characters that always gets mentioned that fans wished came about in the movie.

Absolutely. So hopefully, we give people something to be excited about in some small way – at least with these cards and hopefully it looks like they stepped straight out of the same world as the rest of the characters in the movie.

So far it's looking excellent. What sort of challenges did you come across trying to recreate this all in digital, Photoshop, and photography?

There are the challenges in that we didn't have a lot of time to spend on it, so we have to do as much as possible creatively to reuse stuff that we already have. Either things that have not made it in front of the camera or that have been glimpsed so briefly that they are not recognizable, or things that we can digitally alter. We tried not to have to make too much new stuff, especially for them. Radagast's staff was one of the only things that we started from scratch and completely made because we didn't have anything really appropriate for that. But other things, like the costumes, were creative reuses from different characters, re-colored either digitally or redressed differently. It was really great to have the same people working on the makeup and the costumes for these shots that we had in the movies, so it was a great chance for them to apply everything that they had learned. And, they have an intimate knowledge of all their different areas so they were able to come up with interesting ways to make these characters different and yet feel like they are from the same world. Like Tom Bombadil – his coat is actually a very early Gandalf test costume that never went very far. That's popped on him, and we made it a little bit more blue to fit with the description from the book. And his hat is a Hobbit hat. I think it's a Hobbit hat that we popped on him and colored up as well.

Tom Bombadil in the makeup chair.

How were the actors cast for this shoot?

As much as possible – simply for access reasons and also just for the fun of it – we tried to cast the characters from within the Weta Workshop and within The Lord of the Rings crew. We've had the chance to use Yal, who has been an Elf for seven years on the movie, so you don't need to coach that guy in any way. He can walk right on the set, and he knows exactly how he should stand and how he should look, so he's an ideal choice for that. But, most of the rest of the cast ended up being pulled from the Weta crew, which is great because these are people who really wanted a chance to be in the movies and that worked on them for so long, so now they have their own little moment for some fame. And there are some surprising stars amongst them as well. Some of the actors are so different in real life than how they come across in the film – say like Peter Lyons, the master sword maker.

What has been your inspiration for the settings, imagery, and the conceptual stage – was it mostly taken from J.R.R. Tolkien?

Yes, it was mostly taken from the books, but we also tried to put those descriptions through a "PJ filter."

What is a "PJ filter?"

Well, good question. Looking at the movies, you get something that is in most cases adhering to what is described in the book, but also with the touch of something else. It's a little flavor, a taste of something else. We try to fuse them all with a taste that runs through the movies. It's an enormous thing to try to put your finger on, but to try to bring that to these cards as well – little surprises or maybe little cute things in them. Just trying to bring them into the same feeling that the movies have. That's the "PJ factor," although it's hard to nail it down.

It's sort of a perfect emotional moment in a sense sometimes that captures it.

The process as I saw it was read a passage in the book for that character, pitch it to you, and then together we'll come up with something that we think works for that particular scene. Your emphasis has been on the storytelling, which I think is totally appropriate. In each little image, we try not only to catch a moment in time but actually tell a little story and put it in context for the game.

It's like a frozen moment from the film that never came about.

Yes, a frozen moment from something that in an ideal world would be in the big nine- or ten-hour version of The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. It's fun because in watching the films I think – and this is certainly our hope – that you could step sideways in any point of the movie, step out of the main story, and just keep walking around Middle-earth, and it would be a real place. That's something we worked on, trying to make the films' feel. So hopefully these cards kind of look like you've just stepped to the left plane and you could actually go find these characters living somewhere in Middle-earth, and we just didn't go with our movie cameras. That's part of the impression I'd love to give as well.

Tell me about some of the weapon and costume choices.

Well, the weapon and costuming choices more than anything were driven by what do we have that we haven't really had a good look at? What can we reuse and redress that we haven't had a good look at and give it a chance to be seen. So, there was a chance to reuse some of the Rohan stuff, particularly Théodred's stuff that was barely seen. You know, we see him as a corpse and pretty much that's about it. So it was a chance to really show off some of that beautiful work that was done that hardly gets any screen time.

And, ironically the person who made it is also the model for it.

Yes, exactly, which is so nice. Again, they used someone from the workshop. Mike Grealish is so fantastically heroic looking. As soon as they put the long wig on him, he looks like a Rohan soldier, so it's amazing that he never made his way into the movie at all.

And, that sense of pride in the armor, that really comes through.

It does – it really oozes out of him. He's quite a humble man, but there's a chance for him to step in something he is wearing and to feel proud. That was really cool.

Oh, the Rangers – using both Warren Mahy and Gareth McGhie. Both are great Rangery-kind-of-looking guys and they really enjoyed it. And, Ben Wooten relished his role – his chance to play Brand. And, he had a great time. I know when you guys were shooting he had very firm ideas what he should be doing. He just loved it. He was asking every day, "It's still tomorrow, right? We're still going to do it?"

Yeah, he brought a lot of energy to the shoot and a mental sync with the character.

I think that's the nice thing about casting from the crew, too, is that people are enthusiastic about it and are really keen to do it – or have been thinking about it. All of them would go home and read their passage in the books again to make sure they got the character right.

Like the situation with "Elves don't lean."

Yes, exactly. The photographer said to Jarl, "Lean forward a little bit please," and Glorfindel replies, "Elves don't lean." (laughs)

This all came together very quickly and in a short amount of time. From my feeling, it was a window of opportunity that was closing very quickly. I see over here at Weta Workshop stuff going into containers and King Kong work moving in.

And, having access to people like Emily Sturrock who knows the Weta inventory extremely well and has spent so much time on-set so she knows everybody else as well. She was the perfect person to then liaise with Amanda Neil, who was also our model for Goldberry, and get Frankie (who prefers to not use her last name) and Susan Durno to do the makeup. These people have all worked together for years – they know each other well, they know their capabilities, and they have a confidence with each other that they can walk in and trust each other to do their jobs.

Amanda Neil (Goldberry) works on Radagast's costume fitting.

And Grant, the photographer, was excellent. He has shot a lot of stuff already for some of the Harper Collins books – mostly artifacts and things – so it is nice to have him onboard. And, he also brought his familiarity.

Well, I certainly hope we can go back and do more. I would certainly love to. It's been really fun. I'm actually relishing now the chance to go into Photoshop and complete them all and get out some beautiful cards. I started making the cards because I just think they look cool. Even though you've got the game – they look cool. So, hopefully these will be more of the same in that sense.

Was there any particular character out of the whole range of characters that was daunting for you in realizing?

Yes, the barrow-wight. Still, even after we shot him, I'm not completely sure exactly how he's going to look. I think he'll be OK. We've got visuals for him, it's something that will come together as we look at it, work on it, and try a few different things out. They are very hard characters to do without crossing into the Ringwraith territory.

And, the descriptions that J.R.R. Tolkien put forth are vague.

Oh yeah, they're very impressionistic, which is Tolkien. His descriptions of the Balrog are very vague and impressionistic. There aren't strong images to pull from, and it's always pretentious – what one person interprets is not going to be the same as another person. Even with these cards, some people may say, "Well, that's nothing what I imagined Tom Bombadil to look like." In the same way that in the movies, you never can please everybody. You aim to please most of the people most of the time and at the very least even if they disagree with you, you'd hope they would go, "Oh well, that's not how I imagined it, but it's kind of cool – I don't mind it." So hopefully there's that.

Well, you do take that into account, don't you, when you're conceiving how you'd like that character to work?

Absolutely, in the end that's always what you do. You come from your own inspiration and work to that. In this particular case, we didn't have a director that we were trying to please; we were trying to please each other by committee.

But, the spirit of PJ was still there.

It's hard to get away from it actually now. It's so infused in The Lord of the Rings. And, we know that PJ is probably going to see these at some point, so you hope that he'll look at them and go, "Oh, cool!"

Particularly what I'm actually relishing – whether it happens or not, but I hope it does – is now going in and getting characters like these half Trolls and the Trolls in Moria, trying to push around some of the images we've got and try to make them into something else. I think that's going to be a lot of fun. The Cave Troll in Moria was "the" Troll. All the other Trolls that we've seen in The Two Towers and The Return of the King were that Troll altered and changed and fooled around with. I'm hoping we can do exactly the same thing again to try and come up with some other interesting ones for these new cards. The other thing, too, with these cards, I think a lot of the time we'd start out with something which would be quite stoic and sedate in design and by the time we actually got around to shooting, the concept would change to much more of an action scene, which was fun because I think the action scene was so much more dramatic and cool and interesting – and again, they tell a story. It's not just a guy standing in front of a camera posing.

So, you've been working on The Lord of the Rings films for a long time – since when?

I went into a design meeting back in 1997 with Richard and a couple of the other designers. We went around to Peter's place and sat around eating fish and chips on his kitchen table and talked about ideas for the project and what characters he'd like us to start drawing – that was seven years ago now, so this is really remarkable. It's come so far, and it has been so long.

Do you have a feeling of closure on it yet?

Not yet. It's never really finished. Every time I think I'm done on it, there's always something else – be it the merchandising with Sideshow Weta or in this case these cards, which to me is actually more exciting because we're making new stuff as opposed to just rehashing what we already had. We're actually coming up with new characters and expanding the world. And, myself and some of the other designers are so in love with Middle-earth that we ended signing on with Decipher to do illustrations for the roleplaying game, which has been great fun. I guess in my heart I'm reluctant to leave. I like it so much. People complain about The Return of the King having quite a long ending – some don't like that. I loved it because I just didn't want it to end. I just wanted it to keep going on, and on, and on. It's the long goodbye in a sense. Maybe if I'm lucky, I can spread it out long enough until somebody figures out that they're going to make The Hobbit, and maybe I can just roll straight into it. That would be an ideal scenario.

And then we'll have opportunity for even more cards.

Oh yeah, exactly!

 

April 5, 2004

 

 

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